Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Purification of Memory
Sunday Night Journal — July 31, 2005
I have little patience with the historical self-righteousness that comes so easily to much of the pampered West nowadays. Those of us born after the Second World War, who have had at least in physical terms the softest lives of any people who have ever lived, often seem to find it easy to pass the most severe judgment on everyone who lived before us, even regarding situations in which they were struggling for a decent life, or even for their very survival, against dangers which we have never had to face, partly and precisely because they did. If we had been there, we seem to believe, we would have done the right thing. I sometimes even get the sense from people my own age (mid-50s) that we have never entirely let go of the pity we felt for ourselves when we were young, finding ourselves in a world which, to our aggrieved astonishment, was not perfect.
This readiness to condemn seems odd when contrasted with the widespread belief that we have no right to judge the actions of anyone else, especially if we have not walked a mile in his shoes. Such caution apparently applies to everyone except our own ancestors, who are vilified for every occasion when they failed to meet the ethical standards we have retroactively set for them. “Liberal self-loathing” is the term sometimes given to this contempt for one’s own cultural past when it’s found on the left, but that doesn’t seem really accurate, as the condemnation is not directed toward self either individually or collectively: the judges do not really view themselves as being part of the culture they condemn. They themselves belong to the new, all-tolerant, all-liberating, all-knowing culture toward which evolution has been working for millennia and the main task of which is to finish off its mortal enemy, the old stupid vicious culture. And besides, a variant of the phenomenon can be found on the right, although it is less straightforward. I think both instances are at least partly mutant forms of American exceptionalism, but that’s a subject for another note.
Rejection of this almost mindless refusal even to attempt to understand the past should not and need not mean a reactive attempt to whitewash it. In fact, contempt for the past is probably at least in part a reaction against versions of history which painted a too-pretty picture of it. The temptation to believe our enemies to be thoroughly evil and our friends to be almost perfect is almost as strong when we look at history as when we look around us in the present day. But I recall how stunning and somehow liberating it was to me to read Swift’s Tale of a Tub, in which English Puritans are portrayed as ridiculous fanatics. It was not so much that I thought Swift was entirely correct about them—he had, of course, his own polemical goals—as that it was refreshing to get a different view of them, one in which they were neither the noble crusaders of one strain of American history, or the evil witch-hunters of another strain. Perhaps that was the point at which I understood with my heart as well as my mind that history was not simple and that those who acted in it were facing a world in which good and evil, truth and falsehood, were as mixed and murky as they are to us.
Under John Paul II, the Catholic Church has recently undertaken an historical evaluation of itself which has been called “the purification of memory.” The phrase (I am not sure whether the Pope himself was the author of it) is meant to describe a process of facing the Church’s past with the greatest attainable degree of humility and honesty. But it is not an abstract or academic exercise; “it is also meant to be an occasion for a change of mentality and certain attitudes in the Church, as well as the source of a new teaching for the future, in the consciousness that the sins of the past remain as temptations in the present.” (See this document.)
Something like that, I think, is needed in the United States with respect to—well, with respect to many things, but in particular to the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 60th anniversaries of which are coming up this week. Those bombings are only the most dramatic and terrifyingly efficient instances of the general practice of bombing civilians in which the U.S.A. engaged during the Second World War. Of course every other belligerent having the capability did the same, but it is we who now stand in a position of dominance over much of the earth, and our ability to see the right path and to follow it will have a decisive effect on the rest of the world, and will determine whether our future is to be that of a nation intent on justice or of one devolving into just another large-scale criminal enterprise, like most of the world’s now-fallen empires.
We must face, and take responsibility for, the simple fact that what we did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong. I call this a “simple” fact fully aware that not everyone grants its status as fact, much less that it is simple. The simplicity to which I refer is not that of the historical decision, which was indeed complex, but of the abstract ethical principle: it is wrong to target noncombatants in war. It is wrong to incinerate non-combatants in their hundreds of thousands at a swoop. It is wrong, and, what perhaps most needs saying in our present ethical climate, even if you have powerful reasons for doing it, it is still wrong. And if it is not wrong, then our argument with, say, Osama bin-Laden becomes a question of who struck first and who had the greater provocation; that is, we have no principled argument against his methods.
I am not saying that the circumstances surrounding the decision to use the atomic bomb were such that the right decision should have been easy. That is exactly the error I want to avoid, and of which those who defend the acts might accuse me. I do not even want to evaluate the objective moral culpability of those who made the decision and those who carried it out. That is for God to determine. I want to emphasize that there were strong reasons for the decision, and most of all to stress what is so easy to ignore for those evaluating such acts from the comfortable, safe, and omniscient vantage point of the future: that the cost of deciding otherwise might have been enormous.
If you think it was easy to be Harry Truman in 1945, and that you would certainly never have done what he did, spend a while imagining yourself looking at the casualty figures from the war in the Pacific and contemplating those that could be expected in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Think of asking a nation which had already sent most of its young men into the hell of modern war to keep sending them, with the expectation that an even higher percentage of them would not return. Read something real and unsentimental about the war and imagine yourself as a soldier who has survived the Philippines or Guadalcanal and would now face something worse. Think, too, of the nightmare that would have faced the civilian population of Japan, caught in the middle of a land war that would involve the entire country until the last soldier surrendered or was killed. Then imagine that you could make all these horrible possibilities go away by one or two acts that would cost no American lives and quite probably fewer Japanese lives than would have been taken in an invasion.
No, it was not an easy decision, and anyone who thinks it would have been if only he had been there to make it is fooling himself. Even one untempted to swerve from absolute principle would have been, and ought to have been, daunted, to say the least, by the possible consequences of not doing the forbidden thing. There is indeed much we might say, much that has been said, in extenuation of the decision. But what we cannot and must not say is that it was right.
Why is it important to recognize this? Because “the sins of the past remain as temptations in the present.” One who believes that stealing is wrong may, given the right combination of temptations and pressures, steal anyway. But one who does not believe stealing is wrong is almost certain to do it regularly. We Americans have a tendency to believe that if we really, really need to do a thing, it must therefore be right. I sometimes think that may be our fatal flaw. But it is a far lesser sin to fail to live up to the moral law than to reject it.